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Afghanistan facing humanitarian disaster amid pandemic, continued violence, US watchdog finds

Traveling by helicopter over Kandahar province, Afghanistan. (USACE Photo by Karla Marshall/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Millions more Afghans are being pushed into poverty by the coronavirus pandemic, which has overwhelmed the war-wracked country’s basic health-care system and exacerbated food insecurity, a U.S. watchdog said on July 30.

The pandemic’s devastating effect, combined with the continued high levels of violence, has brought one of the world’s poorest countries to the brink, the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) said in its quarterly report, warning that the country “is headed for a humanitarian disaster.”

The virus entered Afghanistan in February as thousands of migrants returned from neighboring Iran, which at the time was the region’s worst-hit nation for the virus.

Since then, Afghanistan has been ravaged by COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus.

“The economic shock of the pandemic — including increased unemployment, food-supply disruptions due to border closures, and rising food prices — has exacerbated Afghans’ food insecurity, already impacted by the ongoing conflict and high poverty levels,” said SIGAR, which collates expert and media reports and conducts its own analysis.

About one-third of Afghanistan’s estimated 32.2 million people were either in a crisis or an emergency state of food insecurity, the report warned.

Prices of essential commodities like wheat flour, cooking oil, sugar, and pulses have steadily risen over the past few months.

“At the same time, the purchasing power of casual labor has dropped significantly,” the report noted.

SIGAR said Afghanistan had likely entered a recession because of the pandemic, with the economy projected to shrink by up to 10 percent in 2020.

“Experts predict that an additional 8 million people will fall into poverty, pushing the poverty rate from 55 percent to 80 percent,” the report says.

Afghanistan has almost 36,500 confirmed infections, with nearly 1,300 deaths.

SIGAR said that number may “vastly undercount” the true toll of the virus and pointed to research showing up to 90 percent of possible cases are not being tested.

“Testing remains limited, but nearly 43 percent of samples test positive, one of the highest rates in the world,” the report warns.

Most of the detected cases are in urban areas, with Kabul becoming the epicenter of the virus.

Virus-related border closures have seen customs revenues plunge, with sustainable domestic revenues down 23.4 percent in the first two quarters of 2020, compared to the same period last year, SIGAR said.

The report acknowledged that Taliban violence has remained above “historic norms” for most of the second quarter of this year and the security situation had not improved following the signing of a landmark peace deal between the Taliban and the United States in late February.

“Violence levels stayed well above historic norms for the majority of the reporting period,” SIGAR said, citing NATO’s Resolute Support mission.

The militants continued attacks on government security checkpoints and bombings, pausing online for a three-day cease-fire over the Eid al-Fitr holiday in late May and a current cease-fire for the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on July 28 said more than 10,000 government forces had been killed or wounded since the U.S.-Taliban deal was signed.